Shashwat : The early crustaceans gave way to archosaurs and then to Dinosaurs.
Me : Yes, I guess so.
Shashwat : They in turn gave way to reptiles and mammals.
Me : Yes, seems to be the case
Shashwat : Apes evolved from mammals and then humans from apes.
Me : Yes,, so what’s the point?
Shashwat : So what did God do?
When from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.
– Marcel Proust – Remembrance of Things Past
I was sure I could not smell it. Neither would I ever dream of tasting it. But still the large lichen-blotched, creamy-white egg, twice as big as a hen’s, which lay hidden under the monsoon-nurtured growth besides the temple under the old Ficus (Ficus virens) was unflinching in its effect – a barrage of remembrances. As the summer vacations wore out and the first monsoon showers sprayed the earth, the Loo — that terrible warm wind that heartlessly confined us indoors on most except a few lucky afternoons — would weaken just enough to melt Grandma’s heart. We would be allowed to wonder about at noon. With the threat of the new session at the school looming large the creeping melancholy was kept at bay by just one noble quest – locating the first clutch of peafowl eggs.
We would peer under the unkempt wild monsoon growth, below the bamboo clump, all around the Ficus tree and less-frequented nooks and crannies. Eventually the garden would give up the secret and in one sudden glorious moment the quest would end. The sight of the freshly laid clutch of large creamy-white eggs, unblotched and pure, was always a heart-stopping moment that overwhelmed our effort, quest and imagination. For a brief moment our restless teenaged selves were nudged into silence. Right now the unhatched egg catching the soft winter sun is both — the sign of the fecund monsoon now past and the cruel toss of the evolutionary dice — which prevented its incipient promise from joining the small peacock chicks running in a beeline behind their mothers elsewhere in the garden.
Once, a cousin and I found a clutch of eggs in a very unlikely place. We had a huge Kadamba tree next to the Ficus and below it were multiple stacks of red bricks meant for a house extension that was getting delayed. Weeds had overgrown these stacks. One day, as we climbed up an unexpected sight greeted us. A clutch of four eggs was placed on top of the stack almost 5 feet above the ground. Thrilled beyond our wits we tucked in our shirts into our shorts, picked up an egg each, put it in and buttoned up. Then, dressed in this moronic marsupial mom’s getup, beaming with pride over our concealed treasure, we walked about the village.
After 30 mins or so we realized our folly and hurried back to reunite the “eggs with their brothers”. By the time we got them out of the pouch they were oozing liquid from a few hairline cracks. Placing them back we hurried away and never went back to check in the few remaining days of the vacation. To this day I wonder about the fate of those eggs.
Proust’s subterranean ocean of memory needs just a gentle tap to leap forward into a vibrant reality, a curious mix of real and magical, transformed but true. I don’t even attempt to explain this to the kids – the hidden ocean of memory, more real than anything else, yet is empirically almost non-existent. They will not grasp it, their reality is still being formed and hence we focus on the task at hand – the feather search, which hopefully will drip into their embryonic ocean.
Peafowl shed a lot of feathers and any garden that they inhabit is a treasure trove. We collect them all – the common full-moon ones, the small iridescent blue-greens from the neck, the ones with dark brown stripes that do not appear to be peacock feathers at all (they are from the flanks) , the peculiar baby semi-circular fans and strong dark-brown and light-brown flight feathers. The feather search is extremely rewarding and yields a mysterious Nightjar in addition to the feathers. We also discover what looks like peacock roosts on the ground – shallow depressions made by scratching off the loose topsoil. Initially I thought them to be practice-nests but one foggy morning I saw a hen sitting on one of them (it appeared that she had spent the night there but I could not confirm that). They usually roost on trees and it was past the breeding season – so we have our task cut out for the next winter.
The garden took on its winter coat. Early migrants came in – the unmistakable Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros) with its shivery tail (a useful help for ID in case one is looking at a juvenile), Red-Throated Flycatcher (now split into Red-Throated and Taiga Flycatchers with overlapping ranges) and the lovely Grey-Headed Canary Flycatcher (Culicicapa ceylonensis) – singing now but strangely never as vocal as in the Himalayas or Western Ghats. The new crop of Langurs enjoy the soft fading winter sun and the warmth of the mother’s clasp – this is their first year on the planet and they are wide-eyed, inquisitive and curious.
I am sure Shashwat’s mental arithmetic and philosophical ponderings never ceased and two years later, post hours musing, reading, watching TV and a good dose of inspiration from Richard Attenborough, Stephen Hawking et al he was ready with an answer. His answer.
Teacher : Everyone will now name one thing that he/she would like to thank God for. You will have to tell it to the whole class.
The kids proceeded to name things and events they wanted to be thankful to the almighty for – a kid sister, the school a new toy.
Teacher : Shashwat, and you?
Shashwat : I thank God for the Big Bang.
Time for the multiverse!
Text and photographs by Sahastrarashmi
Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher photograph by Sandeep Somasekharan
- Encounter: The Sacred Grove at Oorani - November 28, 2012
- Encounter: Rhododendron, sentinel of the highlands - October 7, 2012
- Manjhi Akshayavat, an immortal Banyan tree - July 17, 2012